During a trip to Tehran in October 2011, I was astonished to see only one banner displaying Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s picture (in comparison, the image of Iran’s current head of state, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was displayed just about everywhere, more often than not, alongside Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran). This did not seem to reflect the coverage the current Iranian President receives in the international media.
It would seem that definitely in Iran, Ahmadinejad and Khamenei’s recent rivalry has been a very public affair. Their conflict sheds light on the visible split within the conservative coalition in Iran: between those who support the supremacy of the clerical elite and the neo-conservatives led by Ahmadinejad and his supporters, who question that supremacy.
Following the controversial 2009 elections, Ahmadinejad had initially received the backing of Khamenei. But now, no longer the clerical elite’s poster-boy, Ahmadinejad has just about become its Macbeth. However, unlike Shakespeare’s Duncan, Khamenei has put up a formidable fight.
Several reasons can explain the souring of the relationship between the two leaders. It has been suggested that at the heart of the conflict is a convergence over two different visions of the Islamic Republic: Khamenei wants to understandably maintain the theocracy, whereas Ahmadinejad seeks to marginalise clerical rule and establish his own brand of conservatism. What is clear is that both parties want to justify their raison d’être.
With his own blueprint for Iran, Ahmadinejad has sought different ways to legitimise his power. One of Ahmadinejad’s chief supporters is his Chief of Staff and brother-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei. In seeking new ways to remain relevant, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad have looked to the past by trying to become champions of Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage. This was seen through their extensive promotion of an exhibition of the Cyrus Cylinder, which dates back to the 6th Century BCE during the reign of Cyrus the Great. As an alternative source of legitimisation, Iran’s pre-Islamic heritage is a source of great pride to many Iranians. And as such, it is a potent challenge to the position of the jurists.
Make no mistake: Ahmadinejad is a nationalist. To say he is Iran’s present-day Muhammad Mussadiq – the Iranian Prime Minister who nationalised Iran’s oil in 1951 – is a step too far, although it could be claimed that nuclear power is Iran’s 21st Century national resource and therefore a symbol of its sovereignty. By claiming thus, a cynic could conclude that this is yet another way in which he seeks to remain relevant. Indeed, Khamenei has accused Ahmadinejad of making the nuclear issue a personal, rather than a national, crusade.
However, it should be noted that the rivalry between the offices of the Supreme Leader and the Presidency is not new. Indeed, it has already been suggested that Ahmadinejad has simply fallen into the all too familiar pattern of previous Iranian Presidents, who upon reaching their second (and final) term, realise that their position has been marginalised by the clerics. Indeed, Iran’s previous reformist President, Mohammad Khatami, experienced this: he faced opposition from the Supreme Leader and the more conservative factions within government. Although Khatami was willing for more engagement with Western nations, Khamenei always had the final say in foreign affairs. Ahmadinejad has found himself in a similar position.
The current struggle between the President and the Supreme Leader has played out over the appointment of ministers, accusations, undermining of the other’s power bases, and arrests of supporters. The struggle over ministers was a main symptom of the conflict. **In April 2011, Ahmadinejad made efforts to remove Khamenei’s intelligence minster, Heydar Moslehi but he was overruled. A month later, Ahmadinejad removed the ministers of oil, industry and mining, and social welfare; but when he sought to take on the oil ministry, the Guardian Council, Iran’s highest legislative body, regarded it as an illegal move.
In retaliation to Ahmadinejad’s disobedience, Khamenei’s supporters have branded Ahmadinejad and his followers as a “deviant movement”. The Supreme Leader has even gone so far as to suggest the abolishment of the office of the President. **Recently, the Iranian Parliament summoned Ahmadinejad where he was scrutinised over his policies, as well as his supposed confrontation with the Supreme Leader. As the first President in the Republic’s history to be questioned in such a manner, Ahmadinejad’s credibility continues to be attacked.
With the Presidential election coming up, Ahmadinejad continues to desperately seek ways in which he can legitimise his position and political legacy: it is rumoured that he is grooming Mashaei as his successor. Another possible candidate to the Presidency, Tehran’s current mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, has openly sided with Khamenei. Indeed, one would have to in order to be considered as a possible candidate for the election. Unless there is a radial change, it would seem that ultimately, Khamenei, with the final say in just about everything, has won the conflict. Ahmadinejad, despite all his efforts, can only hope for the best for his political legacy.